Before I jump into why humans may or may not have the potential to spawn superhero offspring, let’s first consider the simple earthworm (bear with me). No. In fact. The mutant earthworm.
These super power night crawlers are as distinct from normal earthworms as humans are from mice. Specifically, these invincible segmented tubes have recently appeared in an old copper mine in Devon, Great Britain. This is no ordinary copper mine of course. Left derelict after dangerously high levels of arsenic were discovered in the soil, this mine has been abandoned and was supposed lifeless for nearly two centuries. But Professor Mark Hodson, at the University of York, has discovered a new species of earthworm capable of living in these poisoned soils due to the process of natural selection. Somewhere along the timeline, chance mutations occurred in an earthworm rummaging in this lethal plot and it didn’t die along with its peers. One thing led to another, and now these “superworms” reside there with a genetic profile all of their own, surviving their regular earthworm ancestors in this elegant example of evolution.
But do modern day humans also undergo evolution, so that we too can adapt to form superstar abilities?
Well, around 60,000 years ago, humans left Africa and started to spread across the globe, to all corners and all environmental extremes. We see differences in our populations as a result. The original dark skin has been replaced with paler skin, particularly in Europe and Asia, due to genetic mutations occurring in the migrating populations reaching land of less sunlight, i.e. the north. But many scientists believe that nowadays, natural selection has been slowed by our human resourcefulness to invent. Perhaps, they propose, we have cleverly educated our way out of evolution through advances in modern medicine and engineering.
And yet there are still cases being discovered where human populations have evolved to their more extreme surroundings. Take the Nepalese and Tibetans for example. They have lived in high altitude Himalayan villages for over 10,000 years. A sea-level human would struggle and could even die from this low oxygen environment. Visitors would have to adapt to the low oxygen by generating more red blood cells to carry more oxygen around the body. But more red blood cells mean a greater chance of blood clotting, and this is bad news.
When scientists tested the hemoglobin in the red blood cells of Sherpas and Tibetans, they found that these locals did not need to overproduce hemoglobin to sustain their daily life in the clouds. In fact, these discrete populations have evolved to improve their oxygen circulation instead. With wider blood vessels and a unique and more complex network of capillaries they can happily go about their business without any risk of altitude sickness. Superhero name? Hemoglobin man!? OK no. I agree. That was weak.
However, except for these few specific cases of extreme environmental pressures, the current form of our species seems to not really take part in natural selection. In Shakespeare’s day, one-in-three babies didn’t reach 21 years of age. Today, 99% of children make it to adulthood. That is nearly all of the population reaching reproductive age and passing their genes forward. Furthermore, by sheltering our bodies with clothing we don't even need to evolve to have thicker fur like polar bears to withstand cold temperatures, or by farming the land, populations can rely on plentiful and regular supplies of food, so the genetically weak can be nurtured. Survival of the fittest and the less fit and in fact the really unfit is now possible on our technologically advanced planet.
The advent of superhero humans will just have to wait then, because short of a deadly pandemic ravaging the Earth or another Armageddon-type event (Asteroid threat) that would drastically alter the playing field, our species will continue along a relatively stable genetic path.
And unfortunately for this amusingly misleading headline, this means no sign of our version of Spider-Man in the near future.